Author Q&A: Kirsten Claiden-Yardley

We recently invited Facebook users to send in questions they would love Kirsten Claiden-Yardley to answer about Thomas Howard. Read on as Kirsten provides some fascinating answers!

Was Thomas Howard as cut-throat as some media would have us believe?

(I have assumed that this question is about Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk as he is the Thomas Howard who receives the most mediate attention)

I would probably describe him as ruthlessly ambitious and self-interested in the pursuit of power and status at the Tudor royal court and wider 16th-century society. He was prepared to use his wider family to his own benefit – he hoped to see his niece, Anne Boleyn, married to James Butler to resolve issues he was facing as lieutenant in Ireland; and obtained Catherine Howard a place in Anne of Cleve’s households because it was useful to have family in the service of the queen. He was also prepared to abandon his family to protect himself as he did when Catherine Howard and other family members were arrested in 1541. He was fiercely protective of what he perceived to be his rights and was prepared to work to oust his political rivals. This varied from citing the rights of the earl marshal to insist that he should command the royal army against the Pilgrimage of Grace to his public outbursts against Thomas Cromwell and his involvement in an attempt to get Thomas Cranmer arrested in 1543.

In terms of his personality and demeanour, it would be a mistake to assume that he was always violent and cruel. He could be diplomatic when required; he and the duke of Suffolk were noted for their tact in dealing with an East Anglian uprising in 1525 and he initially dispersed the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 with persuasion and promises of pardons and having their grievances heard. Contemporaries noted that he could be sociable, affable, astute and generous. However, they were also aware that his sociability was often to serve his ambitions and that he could present an amiable façade to hide his hostility towards his rivals. It also can’t be denied that he did have a temper and could act violently. He issued the message saying no quarter would be given to the Scots at the Battle of Flodden; he exchanged insults with Thomas Cromwell on more than one occasion and, when Norfolk arrested Cromwell, he tore the St George insignia from around his neck; and he exacted more violent punishments when rebellions broke out in 1537 after his more measured response the previous year.

However, we should not assume that he was unique in his ruthlessness and ambition. His relationship to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard has given him a prominence in the media, and his temper was noteworthy, but any nobleman and courtier with political ambition would use their family to gain access to the king and queen (as can be seen with the Seymours, Parrs and Dudleys), attempt to outmanoeuvre their rivals, and defend their rights to titles or even precedence within ceremonial processions.

How did Howard’s actions change and affect the trajectory of the Howard family?

I think the action that had the biggest impact on the trajectory of the Howard family was his decision to enter into royal service to Henry VII and to commit to the Tudor dynasty with absolute loyalty. The importance of those actions can be seen in the diverging fortunes of the Howards and another Yorkist family, the de la Poles. The Howards were able to regain lands attainted following the Battle of Bosworth, return to the centre of the royal court and government, and establish a dynasty. Meanwhile, the de la Pole male line ended in 1539 with the death of William de la Pole in the Tower of London where he had been imprisoned for the 37 years. Despite originally reconciling with Henry VII the sons of the duke of Suffolk (d. 1492) – John, Edmund, William and Richard – found themselves dissatisfied with the new regime. Between 1487 and 1539, they respectively died at the Battle of Stoke, were executed, died in the Tower of London, and died fighting in the French army. With no surviving children and their only other male siblings in holy orders the family line died out.

The case of the de la Pole’s is slightly different to the Howards because of their status as Yorkist claimants to the throne. Their position at the Tudor court was always going to be precarious because of the potential threat they posed to Henry VII but their own actions in actively taking up arms against the Tudors and, in the case of Edmund and Richard, claiming the throne for themselves, they secured the downfall of their family. Thomas Howard could have chosen to go into exile on the continent. He had been a Yorkist supporter from birth until 1485 so it is not implausible that, after his release from the Tower in 1489, he might have sought refuge with Margaret of Burgundy (who supported both Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck in their claims to the English throne). Or he might have been more half-hearted in his service in the north, received less trust from Henry VII, and become increasingly dissatisfied before choosing to accompany Edmund and Richard de la Pole when they went into exile in Europe in 1501.

If he had left England, he would have spent the rest of his life in impoverished exile reliant on the generosity of European rulers to host him. As he was not a claimant to the throne, he was less valuable to those rulers, and would most likely have ended up earning his keep through military service. He would have been attainted and his lands and titles taken from him. His heir would have had to earn back his inheritance. If he had left England in the early 1490s, his children would have been given as wards to supporters of Henry VII. It is probable that they would have contracted different marriages in these circumstances which would have meant no Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard!

If Thomas Howard had not won at Flodden, and granted the Dukedom of Norfolk, do you think that the family would have risen so high in the next generation? 

The victory at Flodden was timely for the Thomas Howard and his sons as, realistically, they were being sidelined during the course of 1512-13. Defeating the Scots so resoundingly and killing James IV mean that they could not easily be ignored. Their credentials as military leaders were reinforced. The dukedom gave them undeniable social status (there were only three dukes at that time); this would have been visually evident at ceremonial events and would have made them even more desirable patrons. It also brought them additional lands and wealth.

However, would they have risen as high without the victory? Thomas Howard was already a diplomat, councillor, and soldier of many years standing and held the post of Lord Treasurer. The state of Tudor politics was never static and I suspect that, even sidelined, he would still have been an influential figure. He was also a powerful and wealthy landowner even before he was given the dukedom. Thomas Howard the younger also already had a career and his own wealth even before his inheritance. It is also clear that (as described above) he was intensely and ruthlessly ambitious. I think the younger Thomas would still have established himself as one of the leading figures at Henry VIII’s court and on his council. It might have taken a bit longer, and he would probably not have been granted the dukedom so he would not have risen as high in comparison with his contemporaries. However, given the scarcity of dukes in the 16th century, it was possible to be wealthy and politically powerful whilst still an earl.

It is also worth noting that some of the boosts (albeit temporary) to the Howard family came from their relationship to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard which are largely independent of the outcome of the Battle of Flodden. Anne’s career in Europe was down to her father and I think she would have returned to England and developed a relationship with Henry VIII in the same way. Even the placing of Catherine Howard in Anne of Cleve’s household which was more overtly down to Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk, would probably still have been able to take place. It is intriguing to speculate whether the 3rd duke of Norfolk and his son would have been accused of treason at the end of Henry VIII’s reign if the Howards had not been given the dukedom in 1514 but, given their ancestry, the general jostling for power ahead of a minority reign, and the temperament of the two men, I suspect they probably would.

Thomas Howard [3rd duke of Norfolk] seems to be one of the most unsympathetic people in regards to both of his nieces. Are there any aspects of his life that prove otherwise. Did he care for anyone or was it all just for him?

In short, it is hard to think of many aspects of his life that prove he cared for other people. The letter he wrote to Henry VIII in December 1541, after several members of his family were arrested, refers to his stepmother (Agnes Tilney) as ‘ungracious’, his half-brother as ‘unhappy’ and his half-sister as ‘lewd’. His nieces (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) are ‘traitorous’ and, according to him, had little love towards him. He (metaphorically) prostrates himself at the King’s feet and reminds Henry VIII that he reported the words spoken to him by his stepmother that led to her being further investigated and ultimately arrested. Being charitable, there was a risk that he could lose his life and it is understandable that he would try to escape execution. The abject tone he uses is not unusual for someone throwing themselves on Henry VIII’s mercy. However, the descriptions of his relatives and the implication that he provided evidence against them does not present him in a particular pleasant light.

As mentioned in relation to the first question he could be affable, generous, and diplomatic if he wished but he was undoubtedly ruthless and ambitious with a violent temper. His personal relations with his close family also present a pretty unsympathetic picture. He insisted on marrying Elizabeth Stafford despite the fact she had a previous attachment to Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland. Their early marriage does not seem to have been too bad but it deteriorated after he took a mistress, Bess Holland. Elizabeth later complained that he was violent towards her and incited her servants to abuse her. Thomas Howard refuted these claims but he did lock her in her chamber and take her jewellery before banishing her to another house with a reduced allowance and demanding a divorce. It is particularly damning that, when he was tried for treason in 1547, his wife, mistress and daughter all gave evidence against him.

Does the author think there was a link between Charles VI of France mental state and that of Henry VIII, especially after his accident?

The application of medical diagnoses to historical figures is both tantalising and complicated with researchers from both the medical and historical fields discussing how accurate it can be, and whether it should even be attempted. In this case, I am not convinced that Henry’s condition after his accident can be convincingly linked to a hereditary condition. Charles VI (Henry VIII’s great-great-grandfather) had identifiable periods of mental illness with recorded delusions including attacking his companions believing they were enemies, forgetting his identity, denying knowledge of his wife and children, and, as later reported by Pope Pius II, believing he was made of glass. Henry VIII’s condition after 1536 seems to have been mainly typified by increased anger, insomnia, memory problems (but not to the extent of temporary amnesia), impotence and lack of impulse control.

It has been suggested that Henry VI (Henry VIII’s half-great-uncle) who also had recorded instances of mental illness, did inherit his condition from Charles VI. Notably, in 1453, Henry VI was overcome with a frenzy before entering a state of physical and mental catatonia that left him unresponsive for a year. Even though there is a correlation in terms of mental illness within a family, it hasn’t been possible to prove that they had the same cause. Most historians have been reluctant to pin a specific diagnosis on either Charles VI or Henry VI, although suggestions have been made, preferring to talk in generic terms of mental breakdown, or mental illness. In both cases there does seem to be anecdotal connection between stress or a traumatic incident and the triggering of their condition. However, we cannot guarantee that contemporary accounts provide all the details of the progression of their illnesses, earlier symptoms may have been overlooked or their significance not recognised.

In terms of Henry VIII’s mental state, it is not possible (in the absence of detailed medical records or the possibility of physical examination) to completely exclude the possibility of a hereditary condition being triggered by his jousting accident. However, on the evidence and research currently available, I think his condition after 1536 was primarily caused by the jousting accident. He was left with ulcers in both legs that never fully healed resulting in regular infections and chronic pain for the rest of his life. This must have resulted in changes to his mood and sleep pattern, if not to depression – bearing in mind he had been a highly athletic individual who was now no longer able to participate in physical sports. Contemporaries certainly believed that he drank and ate to relieve the pain, and the combination of alcohol and obesity (exacerbated by his inability to exercise) will have added to his poor physical and mental condition. There was considerable publicity given to US research in 2016 that attributed Henry’s later behaviour to a traumatic brain injury incurred as a result of the jousting accident. The impact of concussion on his later behaviour was not a new suggestion, however, this was a consciously medical rather than historical approach that sought to pinpoint the areas of his brain likely to have been affected. It has not been universally accepted by historians but the combination of chronic pain, recurring infection, and head injury does provide a compelling explanation for Henry VIII’s later mental state. For those with an interest in the retrospective diagnosis of Henry VIII, this article provides an interesting argument against that 2016 research, and a defence of it – it also provides an interesting illustration of the difference in medical and historical approaches to diagnosing historical figures.

Find out more in The Man Behind the Tudors which available to order here.

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